Back in May, after the Portland Thorns’ 5-0 thrashing of the Chicago Red Stars, I wrote about how great teams often have a stellar attack but they must also be defensively dominant. It was only the first match of the regular season against a Red Stars team that was struggling, but signs of a defensive identity were visible. Throughout the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup and the first match of the regular season, the ideas and tactics of the press, the structure, and the commitment from everyone on the field to defend were clear.
Portland followed this match with two 2-1 losses to OL Reign and the Orlando Pride in which the Thorns felt played fairly well, but came out with no points to show for it. The Thorns won their next three matches against NJ/NY Gotham FC, Racing Louisville FC and Kansas City NWSL without conceding a goal.
The Thorns dropped their next match 2-0 against the North Carolina Courage in a lackluster performance, but rebounded quickly against Racing Louisville, winning 2-0. Portland was disappointed again as they drew 0-0 to Gotham FC after outplaying Gotham and creating the better of the chances.
Since the goalless draw against Gotham, Portland has not dropped a point. The Thorns have won four straight matches, allowing one goal which came at the end of the match against Orlando. This stretch included wins over Orlando, the Houston Dash, Kansas City and, most recently, the Washington Spirit.
Portland has only allowed one goal since their 2-0 loss to the Courage on June 26th and have conceded a league-best seven goals in 13 matches. This is especially impressive when considering that stalwarts Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Adrianna Franch, Becky Sauerbrunn ,and Christine Sinclair have not been with the team during this stretch due to the Olympics.
Thorns coach Mark Parsons has clearly established a defensive identity and plan that the team can execute regardless of who is on the pitch. There have also been signs of a flourishing attack. The Thorns have scored a league-high 20 goals, but the finishing has been inconsistent at times. The defending has been much more consistent and is the primary reason the Thorns sit seven points clear at the top of the table and have 28 points in 13 matches for the first time in the club’s history.
The team’s commitment to defending along with the ability for players to step up in the absence of others was embodied by Christen Westphal’s performance against the Washington Spirit on Saturday. Westphal started her first match since June 20 and had only played 33 minutes in five matches. But Westphal made one of the most important actions of the match and put in a solid display overall.
.@Cwestphal20 out of nowhere #WASvPOR | https://t.co/0LtSAUK1Jw | #NWSL21 pic.twitter.com/cBYdNLb3Mv— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) August 7, 2021
Emily Menges’ loose touch allowed the Spirit to create a transition opportunity. Ashley Sanchez ran into space and played Trinity Rodman toward goal. Westphal reacted quickly to the danger. She began her recovery run around midfield and took a diagonal path behind her fellow defenders to cut out the potential for a slashing, defense-splitting pass. Rodman closed in on goal and Westphal continued her run to cover goalkeeper Bella Bixby’s back post. The Portland right back made a sliding block that prevented Rodman from opening the scoring early.
The Thorns limited Washington to 11 shots, four on target, and 0.63 expected goals. Portland won 66 duels at 62.3% whereas the Spirit won 40 duels at 37.7%. The difference in these statistics is staggering and, unsurprisingly, Portland were the stronger team defensively. The Thorns not only won the majority of their duels, but they also disrupted the Spirit with their defensive pressure.
Simone Charley, Olivia Moultrie, and Sophia Smith pressed as a front three in a formation that morphed between a 4-4-2 diamond (4-3-1-2) and a 4-3-2-1. The forward line’s pressure and the compactness of the midfield allowed the Spirit to play to their fullbacks. The Thorns would initiate their team press when the Spirit went wide. Portland used the sideline as another defender and would push one fullback and one or two midfielders over to press with the forward and number 10.
This can be seen on the midfield’s defensive actions map. Rocky Rodriguez and Celeste Boureille made the majority of their tackles, blocks, clearances, and recoveries in the opponent’s half and close to the touchline. Angela Salem made the most of her defensive interventions behind the two number eights as she worked to eliminate a way out of pressure.
The forwards and number 10 did well to make their interventions high up the pitch and they forced Washington to go direct far more often than they would have liked. The midfielders sat in a deeper line of three to recover possession and win second balls while attempting to limit defensive transition as much as possible.
Meghan Klingenberg was tasked with a myriad of responsibilities. As is evident in the defense’s intervention map, she pressed high up the left flank, covered the weak side of midfield when the Spirit went down their left, and dropped deep to defend.
Westphal had a more reserved fullback role and made most of her interventions deeper in the Thorns’ defensive half. The center backs — Emily Menges and Kelli Hubly — have a good understanding of the other that allows each of them to aggressively step into the midfield to cut out danger. When one center back steps, the other drops deeper. On the map it is evident that Hubly was tasked with stepping into midfield more, making six interventions around midfield. Menges also did this but usually did so deeper in her defensive half.
The Thorns’ press and counter-press have been crucial to their success, but they have also shown they can defend in a mid-block and drop into a low-block to repel pressure when needed.
Portland’s mid- and low-blocks, like their pressure, are successful because everyone is on the same page and tuned in to what their teammates are doing. This is shown by Parsons’ ability to drop any of his players into the match without the defensive organization changing drastically. Obviously, it is tweaked by the profile of the player introduced but ultimately the shape stays the same.
For example, Natalia Kuikka replaced Westphal at right back. The Finnish international likes to bomb up and down the right flank. The covering and pressure needed to make sure the space behind her isn’t exploited changes a little. The right-sided eight, the six, and the center back need to communicate about who needs to cover the space vacated by Kuikka. But Kuikka presses higher than Westphal and makes more defensive actions in the opponent’s final third.
These types of player-specific tweaks are necessary to get the best out of individuals while keeping the whole defensively solid, which is what the Thorns have been so good at this season.
Portland has also greatly improved their box defending since the beginning of the season. The team shifts side to side well to prevent and deny the poking and prodding of teams that try to unlock the defense. They can also rely on the great one-versus-one ability from the midfielders and defenders.
If a team is able to break down all of that or the defensive structure is pulled apart or exploited, the Thorns can count on Bixby at the back. She is an excellent keeper who has been one of the toughest in the league to get past. Bixby is the safety net for when all else fails.
All of these moving parts were evident in the win against the Spirit. The signs of this defensive organization were visible early in the season, but now the team is executing at a high level. Their organization and execution on defense have helped them to a record start to the season while allowing the fewest goals in the league.
Statistics retrieved from Thorns FC and nwslsoccer.com.